By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

14. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 422-459

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 42-46
Unfortunately, the gambling didn't go well for Mason. Not only did he lose twenty pounds, but he also suffered the indignity of seeing Lord Lepton, "this runny-nos'd, titl'd Savage, tossing their Expeditionary Funds as airy Gratuities to the Slaves." Dixon proposes that they "take something worth twenty pounds" and decides on "a giant Bathing-tub with Feet, Bear Feet in fact, cast at the Lepton Foundry from local Iron." When Mason protests that the thing must weigh half a ton, Dixon reveals that "William Emerson taught things no one else in England knows. Secret techniques of mechanickal Art, rescued from the Library at Alexandria, circa 390 A.D." And to Mason's astonishment, "Dixon seems scarcely to touch the pond'rous Fixture" before one end levitates and the tub is standing "precariously balanced upon a sort of lip or Flange at its other end."

Dixon leaves Mason with the tub while he goes to "reconnoitre," but  soon Mason hears Dixon talking to Lady Lepton in the corridor. "Sighs. Fabric tearing. A merry Squeal." And then music, Handel's "O Ruddier than the Cherry," issuing from "the infamous Musickal Bodice, devis'd by an instrument-maker of London, wherein Quills sewn into its fastening, when this is pull'd apart," play a tune. Mason stands there fuming with the tub while Dixon and the Lady proceed with their dalliance.

But soon someone else appears, fascinated by the tub, which he says is a "quite astonishing Magnet" and "damn' nearly Earth's third Pole." He introduces himself as "Professor Voam, Philosophical Operator, just at present scampering from the King's Authorities." Voam is in possession of a "Torpedo" -- an electric eel, which electrocuted a man in Philadelphia who disregarded warnings not to touch it. Mason is irritated when Voam recognizes him as one of "The Astronomers! Dixon and Mason!" He tries to correct the order of billing, but Voam talks on, pointing out that the tub would be "just the Article to keep Felípe in," Felípe being the Torpedo.

Dixon returns, "emerging coprophagously a-grin from some false Panel in a Wall," and the three of them exit with the tub. In a corridor, Mason is confronted by the slave woman whom Dixon encountered the night before. He recognizes her, but can't believe his eyes. She tells him she was abducted by Malays and sold to the Jesuits, who sent her to a nunnery. "Whence, after my Novitiate, kind Captain D. and I came to our Rapprochement." He admits that he knows who she is -- although the name Austra is not yet mentioned -- but she disappears around a corner.

They enter a room where they find a rifle suspended over the fireplace, and where Wade LeSpark has been resting on a couch. They talk about the rifle, which has an inverted silver five-pointed star on its stock that Mason has seen before, in Lancaster, "upon the Sign of the Dutch Rifle," a tavern. Dixon says they could have taken the rifle instead of the tub, but Mason protests that the silver pentacle means the rifle is cursed. And LeSpark counsels that "taking the Rifle will be far more dangerous, than taking the Tub."

Finally they get the tub outside "where they transfer Tub and Torpedo to a Conestoga Waggon but lately unloaded, with fresh Horses hitch'd up." Only then does Mason ask Dixon, "Did it seem like Austra to you?" And they agree that it couldn't have been. And Voam begins to tell them about the Torpedo, which he says is not an eel but a ray or a skate, native to Surinam, and is also known as "El Peligroso." The professor has been doing a traveling show with the Torpedo, and when they stop at an inn for one, he quickly attracts an audience. He demonstrates the eel's electrical powers by lighting a cigar from the giant spark it produces, but it has a peculiar effect on Mason, who looks directly into the spark and sees "at the heart of the Electrick Fire, beyond color, beyond even Shape, an Aperture into another Dispensation of Space, yea and Time, than what Astronomers and Surveyors are us'd to working with.... Throughout, the Creature in the Tank regarded me with a personal stare, as of a Stranger claiming to know me from some distant, no longer accessible Shore."
Abandoning the Tub, the Professor builds a larger circular Tank, and mounts it upon wheels, so that daily it may be situated directly upon the Line. Felípe then slowly rotates until his head is pointing north. Presently, he has become the camp Compass, as often consulted as the Thermometer or the Clock.
At the end of February they are in Newark when word comes that Maskelyne has been made Astronomer Royal. Mason tries to put on a good face at the news, though for Dixon, "Mason attempting to be chirpy is less easy to bear than Mason in blackest Melancholy." He soon admits that Maskelyne "is unworthy, damn him! to succeed James Bradley." Mason's own aspirations for the post become obvious, and Dixon suggests, "Were I thee, I should make him feel guilty ev'ry change I got. Perhaps he doubts his own Worthiness." Which amuses Mason: "Why bless me, Sir, -- you are a Jesuit, after all. Sinister Alfonso, move aside, -- sheathe that Stiletto, wicked Giuseppe, -- here is the true Italian Art."

In April they begin the West Line and bid farewell to the Harland farm that has been their base of operations. Before they leave, they encounter a stranger named Jonas Everybeet who is fascinated by "the chunk of Rose Quartz where cross the Latitude of the south Edge of Philadelphia, and the Longitude of the Post Mark'd West, -- the single Point to which all work upon the West Line (and its eastward Protraction to the Delaware Short) will finally refer." Everybeet gazes into the crystal and when Mason looks into it he sees a face with "Huge, dark Eyes." Everybeet joins the party as a specialist in magnetic fields, anomalies in which he can discover.

Mason and Dixon are also dogged by a "Body-jobber" named O'Rooty, who specializes in finding workers for the crew, including some Swedish axmen, and a "'Developer,' or Projector of Land-Schemes," whom Dixon suggests they kill. The first day of surveying the West Line is April 5, and in less than a week they have found that the line runs through the house of a Rhys Price, who is away but whose wife has them survey right through the house while she marks the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland within it. When her husband shows up, she announces to him that they were married in Pennsylvania, "So from now on, when I am upon this side of the House, I am in Maryland, legally not ;your wife, and no longer subject to your Authority." Advised that he will have to pay taxes to both Pennsylvania and Maryland, Price decides to put; the house on rollers and move it into one state or the other. And since Maryland is downhill and they will no longer be married there, he chooses Maryland.

Now the mechanical duck makes a return, showing up when Mason makes a disparaging remark about it as a "French toy." The duck steals his hat and is persuaded to return it only when Allègre, who seems to have joined the expedition, persuades it. We also have a glimpse of the crew, including Moses Barnes, the overseer of the axmen, and Nathanael McClean, a handsome young man working during his summer break from college in Williamsburg.

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